Leonhard Grond in Conversation with Juha van ’t Zelfde, March 9, 2015
Juha van ’t Zelfde is a researcher, developer and exhibition maker working across art, music and technology. He started his career as an independent organiser and DJ of experimental electronic music in Rotterdam. In 2012-2013 he realised his exhibition and book project Dread – the Dizziness of Freedom. Since 2014, he has been the Artistic Director of Lighthouse, a gallery for new music, film and art in Brighton. His impressive research on dread seems to be related to our research in some ways.
Leonhard Grond – In our project, Dizziness-A Resource, we try to strengthen the idea that dizziness is a necessary and useful part of today’s conditio humana. Your book, Dread: The Dizziness of Freedom, speaks about the connection of dread and the present. Could you explicate this thought?
Juha van ’t Zelfde – The presumption in the entire project, including the exhibition, the book and the research I still do, is based on a hunch, an intuition, much more than a deep philosophical or analytical understanding of the subject. It discusses the abuse of fear – by people in power for example; and it specifically addresses the abuse of apprehension, which is dread. There is a moral tension that tunes and amplifies this fear of a future. This is something that I am probably obsessed with, and at least fascinated by, but also more than once appalled by. Speaking neutrally, it is something that I encounter very often, for instance if I follow the news, or go through an airport, or read instruction manuals, or think about insurances. I think this is something fundamental and has been present in all ages, not only in our present. I just think that we are living in a phase of heightened dread, due to the planetary fog of war and terrorism, and the cynical abuse of power by governments, by security agencies, and by corporations.
I set out to see how artists deal with it, to understand whether this is an intuition that they have, too. Dread is a sensation I encounter all the time as a cultural organiser, as an observer of the world at the present. I am sure that artists are much more sensitive than I am, and have a much more refined sensibility in expressing it in an aesthetic way – in a multitude of artistic forms and presentation. How do they sense and translate their intuition and sensation? What kind of artefacts, experiences, installations, and meaningful encounters are created today that not only represent or create stories and translate them into understanding, but also create counter-strategies and ways of transgressing, or even ways of overcoming it. So that we don’t have to trust Fox News or Lockheed Martin or Schiphol Airport with our dread, but to have arguments against its abuse or have arguments at least to bare the abuse. We need to find ways to come out of bed and not become really depressed and cynical! That was my ambition with the exhibition and with the book.
Interestingly, it came from the realisation that my fear of heights and my sense of vertigo might be related to my intuition of this heightened sense of dread. My vertigo is the only paralysing fear that I encounter. I have never been shot at, I have never been at war, I did not experience moments of great fear in my life. But I struggle with fear of heights. This complete visceral overtaking of my entire nervous system, and my entire way of thinking is such a strong physical experience that it literally limits my movement. I am frozen! It is fascinating and I think that there exists a connection to how we limit ourselves involuntarily and voluntarily, how we paralyse ourselves and get paralysed by the continuous flow of bad predictions of terror and collective drama. That could be the drone strike, another 9/11, an economic crisis, etc.
That is the kind of dizziness I understand from reading Søren Kierkegaard’s book, The Concept of Dread¹. It is also created by the realisation of the opportunity and the possibility that you can die. That your are mortal. That realisation of the future event, and its projection into the present, creates this dizziness as an overwhelming visceral sensation. This is a very powerful condition and at the same time a very powerful constructive moment, not just something which is regressive. A lot of people interpret it this way, but I think dread can be a very powerful agent to create other solutions, to create a better future or better presents.
LG – So dread contains a transformative power?
JvZ – Absolutely, I think it’s a deep existential, fundamental emotion. It is potentially one of the most powerful we have because it includes the awareness that we can die. Will you fight and will you survive or will you succumb to it and accept your fate?
I am sure that there are certain people or communities that deal with this in a different way than we in the West. I am sure the more we ignore death and do not have death in our lives; the healthier we are, the older we get, the more we are obsessed with remaining young, the worse we deal with dread and the more dread we sense.
LG – In Traditional Chinese Medicine, for instance, dizziness is seen as an illness in itself, contrastingly to our medical description as a symptom. It is interesting that you also mention, that dread could mean something different in another culture. We have some trouble translating this German word TAUMEL to different languages, which can hint to cultural differences.
JvZ – I think it’s a deep physical thinking, or a deep physical knowing, in a way. For me it is where my body takes over, steps in and tells my brain, „No, this is where you don’t get involved, I got this!“. This feels like thousands and thousands of generations of evolutionary knowledge embedded in our being and in our bodies. In a way it is an overriding of the cognitive process. I think for me in this context – thinking about dread, because I haven’t thought much about dizziness – it’s a good metaphor, and the state is a really good one.
I think it is this cognitive override by physical intelligence, or physical knowing and thinking… I am interested in that, because there I encounter my vertigo as well. As a musician and as a promoter of electronic music I’ve always been in the moment of experiencing sound. It is a very physical, bodily experience, and it is also very physical music that I’m interested in, such as jungle, techno and other low-end music. I’ve always had this wariness and reluctance of the art world with its analytical, reflexive and less direct approach to the experience of art. Obviously it is a very black and white cliché of looking at music and looking at art, but music to me is much more immediate, much more inviting, much more inclusive. An imminent, embracing and immersive experience. Coming into the art world from an almost naive intellectual perspective (with a background in DJing and promoting, not a degree in art history or theory), it is quite biographical that I ‘do dread’, and use dizziness, because this feels like a very physical, un-cognitive and un-intellectual approach.
LG – We think that it is not possible to understand dizziness only in a symbolic way. You have to get dizzy, you have to lose control to experience and grasp the phenomenon.
JvZ – Is your research related to the sublime as well? That’s another dizziness. In the book I have a conversation with China Miéville about the sublime. Perhaps, part of dizziness… Is it perhaps a bad sublime or the dark side of the sublime? Miéville speaks of “bad awe,” which I quite like. If you look down from a mountainside, or you look up at the clouds, or you look at a storm, and you have this sense of awe and of something larger than your senses can fathom, you have this aesthetic experience of both fear and awe at the same time – a sense of beauty. It’s an un-realised risk. You know you’re safe, and it just feels bigger than you. It feels dangerous, but it’s not, like a thunderstorm. It feels like dread, the dark side of the sublime, where the other side is more the experience of awe and beauty … when they come together, it becomes a storm and it becomes dizziness. This is this transformative moment of feeling life.
LG – There is this process of dizziness with its many components, for example: you have insecurity, you have velocity, you have loss of control, and you have devotion and empathy, which is very important for the state of dizziness. I’m wondering if you learnt something about the process or about the components of dread.
JvZ – How they manifest?
LG – Yes. What kind of components do you need?
JvZ – Well, I’m unsure, but maybe I can channel the voices of the people I’ve spoken with. The concepts that are used are: uncertainty, the unknown, future, something still has to happen. You can have dread of the past, if it evokes a potential of happening again, like in the case of 9/11. I think of a certain uncertainty, that kind of uncertainty of what might be realised. I think there is a difference between anxiety and dread. Anxiety is more like a crazy, irrational fear and something that doesn’t necessarily have to be realistic, but I think that dread is a very realistic fear. Anxiety could be when you become insane about something. It’s not really realistic that we will die from Ebola in the UK or in the Netherlands, or from a meteorite, or from daily dirt. I see this as anxiety. Dread is fear of flying, or fear of another terrorist attack, right after 9/11, where everyone was afraid of flying all of a sudden because there were four planes that were hi-jacked. This might happen again. In psychology this is called the dread effect. I wrote in the introduction of my book about this effect. Almost 3000 people died on the road in the United States the year after 9/11, because they took a car instead of a plane. It is so much more dangerous to drive a car than to fly in a plane. 9/11 caused 3000 death plus the extra 3000 people to die in a car crash. I think dread feels like a real danger even-though it is not imminent, but distant. Imminent danger is a burglary, or someone pointing a gun at you, or a fire in the kitchen. That’s fear! Dread is knowing if you have a bad wire or a leak in your kitchen, that might cause a gas leak, or a fire at some point, that is dread, and you know you can solve it and you have to solve it, otherwise at some point, you will have a problem. I believe cancer is called the dread disease as well. People with cancer have to live with the uncertainty of an increased risk of dying. This window of educated guessing is when dread kicks in. It’s not now, but it’s a ticking time-bomb. It could surely happen, or the chances are very high that it will happen. Dread is a very realistic down to earth, close to home, future catastrophe.
Looking at technology, there is the so-called Boomerang of Foucault. This implies that something you invent will ultimately work against you. The invention of the ship is also the invention of the shipwreck, and the invention of airplane is also the invention of the hijack, which lead to 9/11, the invention of the internet is the invention of the NSA wire-tapping everything and everyone. Once you have a new technology you introduce the opportunity for the abuse of that technology as well. If you are aware of that…enter dread.
Like the drone, you know, some of ISIS or the next jihadi fundamentalists, or anybody who is against the West ideologically or politically, will try to get a drone to attack Western troops, their countries, their cities, their civilians and that is just a matter of when and not of if. The moment you become aware of these systems and all the potential of the abuse of certain systems and rules, that’s when dread becomes very present. I think it’s a kind of a dormant sleeper cell always present in us waiting to be awoken. But it’s also a matter of knowledge and understanding. If you are unaware, or if you are a child, or if you are ignorant, then you won’t have dread of certain things – because, you cannot fathom their concept.
LG – Dread is a problem of education?
JvZ – In a way it is. It needs a certain understanding of which I’m not sure whether it is completely rational. Is it a rational thing or is it an irrational thing? If it’s only rational you can almost deconstruct it by analysing it to safety. Maybe the irrational is anxiety and the rational is understanding and in their liminal space, that’s where dread is. There is this story from China Miéville about a cow being lifted up in the air and it screams and screams out of fear, but at some point it is just blissfully peaceful and it doesn’t scream anymore, and this is the point of where dread disappears and ends.
LG – How do you navigate with dread? Is dread episodic, is it regulated by the intersection between fast and slow variables? How do you think you can navigate with dread… the story of the cow, is this a kind of navigation?
JvZ – It is an informational navigation. I can tune it by disconnecting, and by becoming wilfully ignorant, or dormant. I as a person can disconnect from it. But then again, for instance, when I’m with my twitter feed I sense continuous spikes and impulses of realisations, micro-moments of distributed dread. Twitter seems to be drip-feeding it, seeding it like bittorrents. At some point it tips over it, it boils over. Lately it happened with drones. We have the drone exhibition now, at LABoral in Gijón, curated by Lighthouse. It happens now with the Islamic State and with Putin and includes all the weird uses of propaganda on social media by states and non state actors. Lighthouse is making a film with Metahaven about this kind of weird propaganda, propaganda in a weird fictional way. The new propaganda is attractive, but it’s politically quite horrible. The novelty of it is attractive and fascinating. There is also a certain innovation there. I have a very brief moment of awe for ISIS, a miévillean bad awe for their ability to become a social-media savy, full HD rendition of Al Qaeda, which is a very horrible thing to say, and obviously I resent everything about them. The way they use the web, and how they hi-jack information streams, that’s pretty clever. So on a borderline sociopathical level, I feel professional awe for people with a deep understanding of how people engage with media and are able to be moved into action. ISIS are good at that. It’s very much like the Power of Nightmares, the Adam Curtis documentary, but in a whole different velocity. It’s about speed of notice and action, speed and the offer of identity, while being omnipresent and easily accessible everywhere.
Dread is, from my very safe position here in Brighton, something I actively look for, whether by reading novels, watching film or listening to music. And, I encounter it in the newspapers, like everybody else does.
The cold war was a period of permanent dread. You looked at the newspaper articles that were written, the movies that were made and the artworks that were created, to many navigate dread. The imperative was: the bomb will fall. Nowadays it’s the same with all the revelations of Wikileaks and Snowden, or the drone warfare in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iraq.
My dread, in the Dread project, is a projected dread, an empathic dread. It’s a dread I feel on behalf of others, it’s like parental dread. You see your child walking to a cliff and you feel fear on her behalf or his behalf, you want to do something. This projecting of other people’s situations or predicaments is something that is an inspiring and motivational form of dread, and I think that this kind of shared dread is where my research comes from and where my work comes from. I think I have a weirdly tuned ability to sense things like this, almost like some heightened hearing organ. (laughs)
It is a revelational dread that causes a sense of responsibility and a moral impetus to act on it. Once you know this is happening, you feel you have to act on it. If you feel there is something wrong, you feel this fear.
In the case of drones, it’s mostly because of the sound. I’m mostly abhorred and appalled by the sound, the sonic terror of drones, in Waziristan and in Yemen, that are there for days and days, flying above villages. Little children are afraid of the sky because those machines are there, and because nobody knows when the missiles will come. They have lost family members and they all hear the stories. They can’t go out anymore! They can’t live their lives freely! They are afraid of blue skies! I think that is my main motivation now. It began with a hunch and it became a fascination, and now it becomes a goal in life to address this. With Lighthouse, we want to find interfaces and formats and spaces and stories to make more people aware of this.
Our role is to tell those stories. Hopefully that helps. The more and more people are aware of it, the more and more other people can join in and we can do something about it. We won’t go to the United Nations to protest. We can start telling stories here and now and then hopefully the path leads to somewhere else.
Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs to dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. In that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained and which no science can explain. He who becomes guilty in anxiety becomes as ambiguously guilty as it is possible to become. (Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, Edited and translated by Reidar Thomte in collaboration with Albert B. Anderesen, 1980 Princeton University Press, p. 61)